Can synodality re-balance the charismatic celebrities?

charismatic celebrities

Pope Francis’ push for synodality inside the Church coincides chronologically with the rise of populist leaders and the crisis of democracy on the outside.

Synodality, therefore, has an ad extra dimension. It is an ecclesial response to populist leaders who “hijack” religion by sowing division and exploiting the anger of those who feel excluded, as Vatican Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle noted recently.

Of course, synodality has specific ad intra dimensions, too.

In an interesting article published a few months ago in Vida Nueva, Spanish Jesuit Alejandro Labajos pointed out that, according to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, four percent of these religious communities had undergone an apostolic visitation (basically a Vatican investigation).

Such visitations are made to look into reports of abuse or serious problems with faith and discipline.
Seduction, spiritualization and blind obedience

Labajos summarized the root problem of the abuse of power in Catholic communities in three points.

First, it usually involves seductive charismatic personalities, often marked today by a strong media profile.

Second, it entails the use of spiritualized language that, on many occasions, is capable of creating ambiguous perceptions of reality and justifying evil by resorting to words such as dedication, the gift of oneself, sacrifice, community, mission and so forth.

And third, it almost always capitalizes on the bond of obedience.

The abuse of power is not found only in the long-established religious orders and institutes. It is also present in the new ecclesial movements and Catholics communities founded and led by seductive charismatic personalities.

Such personalities often attract members through spiritual seduction. In the worst cases, this fosters blind loyalty and total surrender to the will of the leader.

It’s especially operative in communities where institutional systems aimed at preventing such spiritual seduction are absent or frowned upon by the members of those communities.

The wave of revelations of abuse and misconduct of different kinds (included sexual) in lay-led ecclesial communities is one of the new elements of the latest phase (since 2017-2018) in the history of the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis.

It’s no longer just the clerical institutes like the Legionaries of Christ, which was founded by the serial abuser Father Marcial Maciel.
Not all abusive power is linked to clericalism

Now we are discovering abuse in movements that are not identified with a clericalist, anti-modern ideology. It is also present in a Catholic culture open to the modern world, such as Schoenstatt, the Focolare Movement, and L’Arche.

Other recent cases have emerged that have revealed the troubling past of certain Catholic charismatic leaders, such are Father Jean-François Six in France.

There has been a growing awareness of the scope and seriousness of the abuse of children, women, and vulnerable adults. The well-known MeToo movement is one result of this.

As we begin to more carefully appraise the complicated contribution made by new ecclesial lay movements, the Church is already reeling from the scandals caused by charismatic leaders – some long deceased, others still living.

This is one of the reasons why the pope’s push for a synodal Church is so important.

Francis is demonstrating once again that he believes history is truly a magistra vitae– a teacher of life.

He’s a Jesuit whose real genius is spiritual direction. And in light of the last few decades, he’s aware of the risks that the Church runs when it blindly follows the charismatic leadership of individuals.

In his pontificate, Francis has repeatedly warned all-new ecclesial communities and movements to avoid the risks of sectarianism and respect the personal and spiritual freedom of its members.

He issued a motu proprio last November called Authenticum charismatis that amends canon law (no. 579) and requires bishops to get authorization from the Holy See before they approve a new religious institute at the diocesan level. Continue reading

  • Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.
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